Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
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• To find specific rock features or look up movie titles, TV shows, actors and production people, see the "LABELS" section — the long alphabetical listing on the right side of the page, below.
• To join the MAILING LIST, send me an email at and let me know you'd like to sign up.
• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
• To go right to the great Iverson cinematographers, click here.
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Saturday, September 10, 2016

The "kill rock" in the Hopalong Cassidy movie "Mystery Man" — why a rock that was "hiding in plain sight" was so hard to find

I've spent much of the past three months trying to find a certain rock that appears in the 1944 Hopalong Cassidy movie "Mystery Man."

The "kill rock" in "Mystery Man," with Don Costello as Bud Trilling

This is the rock, as it appears in the movie, with Bud Trilling, the lead bad guy, standing next to it. It's a big, high rock with nothing much around it, and should have been easy to find. It wasn't.

Heed the words of Hoppy — aka William Boyd

Most readers won't be concerned about "Mystery Man" spoilers, but in case you're planning to watch the movie and don't want to know how it ends, this blog post goes into detail about the end of the movie.

"Mystery Man" (1944): The final chase begins in the Alabama Hills

The popular Hopalong Cassidy movies of the '30s and '40s did the bulk of their location filming up at Lone Pine, Calif., where they showcased the geological phenomenon that is the Alabama Hills.

I went back out there in 2018 and snapped this photo — the place sure hasn't changed much.

Lone Pine holds an annual film festival each October. While the search for the Hoppy "kill rock" played out on the Iverson Ranch, the Lone Pine Film Festival played a role — as you'll see below.

"Mystery Man": Phantom Shack, in Iverson's Garden of the Gods

The Hoppy movies sometimes augmented their Alabama Hills location shoots with footage filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch. A number of Iverson scenes are sprinkled throughout "Mystery Man."

The "Circle J Ranch" in "Mystery Man" (Lower Iverson)

The "Circle J Ranch" featured in the movie was in reality just a gate and fence set up on the Lower Iverson. Most of the rocks seen in the background here remain in place today among the Cal West Townhomes.

Lone Pine's Alabama Hills: The final shootout begins in "Mystery Man"

Back in June I heard from my pal Don Kelsen, who's an accomplished "rock detective" and who will be conducting a "Mystery Man" tour at Lone Pine in connection with this year's film festival.

Garden of the Gods: Hoppy takes aim from between two rocks in "Mystery Man" ("Position 1")

Don recruited me to help track down some of the Iverson Movie Ranch locations found in "Mystery Man" — especially those woven into the final chase sequence.

Hoppy's two rocks — "Position 1" — as they appear today

I was happy to get involved, not realizing at the time that this endeavor would become the focus of no less than eight expeditions into Garden of the Gods, spanning three months.

Hoppy stands in front of a craggy rock ("Position 2")

The Iverson segment of the final chase gets up to speed after Hoppy breaks off from the main shootout to go after Trilling, the vicious leader of a gang of badmen.

The same craggy rock — "Position 2" — photographed on a 2016 foray into Garden of the Gods

Most of the Iverson sites were easy to find, even though the production team went a little deeper into the interior of Garden of the Gods than movie crews typically ventured.

It's a little hard to make out the craggy rock in the shadows, but it's the rock outlined here in red.

Hoppy closes in on Trilling in the Garden of the Gods — "position 3"

As Hoppy keeps up his relentless pursuit of Trilling, he works his way through the Garden of the Gods.

The same site — "position 3" — as it appears today

While the rocks featured in the chase sequence are a little bit out of the way, they're in close proximity to the Garden of the Gods' most familiar and heavily filmed features.

Don Costello as Bud Trilling — lingering in the Alabama Hills

The sequence stitches together footage from two different locations. Hoppy surfaces at Iverson well before Trilling does, but thanks to creative editing, Trilling is able to fire at him from Lone Pine, about 200 miles away.

Trilling arrives in the Garden of the Gods

When Trilling finally turns up on the Iverson Ranch, he first positions himself behind a rock with a distinctive indentation near the top of it.

This rock, which Don and I began referring to as the "basin rock," was among the first rock features in the sequence to be found, as the indentation, or "basin," made it immediately recognizable.

Hoppy arrives at the "basin rock"

After Trilling flees the scene, Hoppy finds his way to the same rock, hot on Trilling's heels. The rock is located well in the interior of Garden of the Gods, but is fairly easy to get to. You'll find a map near the bottom of this post.

The "basin rock" as it appeared on a recent visit to Garden of the Gods

The "basin rock's" location is not generally on the radar of movie historians, but it's right around the corner from the well-known filming area Overlook Point, where the remnants of an old camera mount can still be found.

Trilling and Hoppy at the kill rock

Both Trilling and Hoppy work their way to higher ground, eventually meeting up at the "kill rock" — so named because this is where Trilling will meet his fate.

Trilling realizes he's trapped, as there's nowhere to go but down.

Closeup of Trilling next to the kill rock

The desperate outlaw makes a final stand.

Hoppy casts an ominous shadow on the kill rock as he takes aim, about to fire the fatal shot.

Trilling goes down, moments before disappearing over the edge of the rock and plunging to his death.

In a typically introspective Hoppy moment, William Boyd's face shows a flash of remorse at the killing of a fellow human being — even one as despicable as Trilling.

The "Mystery Man" kill rock in all its glory

My first impression when I saw the image of the kill rock was that it was probably one of the tall towers in the depths of Garden of the Gods. Starting in early June, I began a series of expeditions in search of the rock.

The rock towers of the southeastern Garden of the Gods (photographed in 2013)

I zeroed in on a particular rock, noted above, as my leading contender for the kill rock. But when I saw the rock in person, it didn't seem to match.

Garden of the Gods rock towers in 2011

Another photo of my would-be kill rock, taken from a different angle, reveals that it does have a flat rock on top, similar to the "Mystery Man" rock. But again, the angles don't appear to match.

The same rock, in June 2016  

I snapped this photo of my "early contender" on my first expedition to search for the kill rock. Once again, it didn't quite match up. I would have liked to get a look at it from the other side, but that view is blocked by a tree.

At this point I was close to finding the kill rock — I just didn't realize it. After a few more expeditions failed to turn up anything new, I became convinced that the kill rock probably didn't exist anymore. I began to suspect that it had been toppled by an earthquake. Either that or it was never at Iverson in the first place.

Family photo from the Joe Iverson collection: the kill rock!

Around that time, by pure coincidence, the above photo turned up. This family photo from the Joe Iverson collection once again captures the kill rock, essentially proving that it was an Iverson feature.

Here's the weirdest part of the coincidence: I believe the man in the photo is Bill Boyd. He was no relation to William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy, but was the brother of Iva May Boyd, who married Joe Iverson in 1947 and helped run the movie ranch for more than 30 years.

"Annie Oakley" TV show: Interior Garden of the Gods, as seen in the episode "The Tomboy"

A second development around the same time got me even more charged up about the kill rock. While doing research for my recent post about the TV show "Annie Oakley," I ran across the above sequence.

The "Annie Oakley" sequence captures a rarely filmed section of the Garden of the Gods interior, but a number of the features were familiar — these were the same rocks I had been seeing on recent treks to find the kill rock.

On a return visit to the site, I was able to positively ID the same rocks seen in "Annie Oakley."

"Annie Oakley": The shot that broke open the case

As the camera pans to the left in the "Annie Oakley" sequence, it catches a glimpse of a rock tower, at top left. When I first spotted this rock, I think I let out an audible gasp. Could this be the kill rock?

Yes, it could. And it is. And the "Annie Oakley" sequence provided the context needed to pinpoint where it was located. In other words, the kill rock had been found.

I think it was this curved mark near the top of the main body of the rock that finally triggered my recognition.

The same curved mark can also be seen in shots taken on recent trips to Garden of the Gods — attached to the rock I had identified as my "early contender."

More to the point, the curved mark can be identified on the kill rock in the Joe Iverson/Bill Boyd family photo. It took the entire body of evidence — the Hoppy sequence, the family photo, the "Annie Oakley" shots and recent views of the Garden of the Gods towers — to connect all the dots.

The kill rock: Hiding in plain sight

When I revisited the site, I found the kill rock right where I expected it to be — and right where my initial hunch almost three months earlier told me it should be. My "early contender" turned out to be the kill rock after all.

It remains difficult to see today because of that tree, but by climbing into the tree I was able to get this slightly less obstructed view of the Hoppy kill rock.

"Annie Oakley": "The Tomboy"

As the "Annie Oakley" sequence shows, the tree was not there back in 1954, when the episode was filmed.

The kill rock in 2016

In this shot, which closely matches the "Annie Oakley" angle, the tree does not look like the formidable obstacle it turned out to be. But it effectively blocks any effort to see the rock as it appeared in "Mystery Man."

"Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1925): An early appearance by the kill rock

The kill rock was hardly a newcomer to the movies when it appeared in "Mystery Man" in 1944. As one of the prominent rock towers in the Garden of the Gods, the kill rock's resume goes all the way back to the silent era.

In the silent version of "Ben-Hur," released in 1925, the kill rock can be seen in the background behind its larger and more famous neighbor the Sphinx.

Garden of the Gods — Google aerial view

For readers who want to see the Iverson Movie Ranch "Mystery Man" locations in person, this aerial may help you find the craggy rock, the basin rock and the kill rock. Start by finding your way to Redmesa Road in Chatsworth.

"Cattle Pocket" in the Alabama Hills — one of the stops on the "Mystery Man" tour

This shot, which also appears near the top of this post, is set in an area called "Cattle Pocket," where some of the most dramatic formations of the Alabama Hills can be found. It's one of the stops on Don Kelsen's "Mystery Man" tour scheduled for Saturday morning, Oct. 8, 2016, in Lone Pine.

Tour participants start the day with a screening of "Mystery Man" at 7:30 a.m., followed by a two-and-a-half-hour bus tour pointing out tons of filming locations. You can find details on the Lone Pine Film Festival website.

Here's a clip of the final chase in "Mystery Man." The first half is filmed in Lone Pine, with the first Iverson shot at 2:03. Then it flips back and forth between Iverson and Lone Pine, and from 3:51 to the end it's all Iverson.


Cliff said...

Great effort and research on this one, looks like Iverson needs a gardener.

Swami Nano said...

You said it, Pard!


Anonymous said...

Outstanding! I greatly appreciate your extensive research and attention to detail. Reading the comments makes me wish I were there with you on the search. Thanks again for all your fine work and information.

Mark said...

You've done it again! You tenacity, as always, is the mark of a good detective.

Unknown said...

Great effort. You rock!